Philip Seymour Hoffman – ‘Be honest, and unmerciful’

Projected memories of an actor’s actor

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

While I am generally not a fan of social media – I use Twitter for work-based purposes only and have refused, on principle, to ever join Facebook – I found myself appreciative of the outpouring of sentiment over the sudden and tragic loss of Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”). Following the initial reports in the Wall Street Journal and the rollout of news across the Internet, rather than focusing on the potential negative angle – suspected drug use/overdose – my Twitter feed captured story after story of people passing along anecdotes about random encounters with Hoffman around New York City.He was the regular guy Master – a great actor who could not just walk the streets, he seemed to love living among the people. He wasn’t a star in the mode of a contemporary, like his “Magnolia” and “Mission: Impossible III” co-star Tom Cruise, who exists in our collective consciousness as “Tom Cruise”; Hoffman was a character actor who, through sheer force of talent, channeled his way into the skin of each and every role, while maintaining a hold onto what it meant to be Philip Seymour Hoffman – notice the lack of quotation marks. Which means the Hoffman people responded to on the street, the one willing to high-five passersby or bask in brief and simple moments of recognition of common connection, was more human than the larger-than-life “heroes” that used to earn the mega-million dollar salaries.

But was he any more human than some of those great characters of his?

Could Hoffman, in real life, have been more of an Everyman than, say, Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous”? The legendary music journo, in the hands of Hoffman, reminds Crowe’s young alter-ego William Miller (Patrick Fugit), to “be honest, and unmerciful” with his subjects, and I am quite certain I am not the first, nor will I be the last, film writer to apply that same sentiment to Hoffman’s efforts. His Lester Bangs was a man who could not be enamored by the outsized personalities, the mythic figures, the adoring crowds eager to feed and please the music makers. Bangs knew those performers could never be his friends because they had given up their rights to any semblance of normalcy, and it would seem that was a lesson Hoffman took to heart.

He might have been projected up there on the big screen for all to see or prowling the live stage night after night during the run of a show, but he wasn’t willing to sacrifice being the quintessential New Yorker, a man wrestling with his own demons and his talent and this idea we might consider him something other than one of us.

It is intriguing to think he was most celebrated for portraying Truman Capote, one of the most outsized personalities of the literary world, a public figure who aspired to this other life, a plane of existence beyond the everyday. In his work, most notably the landmark non-fiction narrative “In Cold Blood,” Capote was “honest, and unmerciful” with his subjects, but not so much with himself. He presented a public façade as a barrier that kept his humanity locked away from us and, to an extent, from himself.

Sadly, Hoffman was one of those performers I never had the opportunity to chat with as part of the promotional paper chase. And yet, based on those social media anecdotes and the extraordinary rogue’s gallery he created for audiences, it is hard to imagine him being anything less than an “honest, and unmerciful” human subject.

 

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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